Saturday, July 07, 2007

"The End Of Violence" Reconsidered

"The End Of Violence" is a film that did poorly at the box office and was panned by critics (28% on Rotten Tomatoes). On watching it again I wish to offer the contrary view that it is one of Wim Wenders' best. The unusual juxtapositions of mood (hitmen played for humour), odd choices of content (no fewer than three scenes at a poetry reading), measured pacing and disjointed narrative could easily have failed, but work splendidly thanks to a consistent humanist message delivered with confidence.

Wim Wenders is an uneven film-maker, with as many brilliant successes ("Paris, Texas", "Wings Of Desire") as failures ("Million Dollar Hotel", "Faraway, So Close"). But even the failures are films full of intriguing performances, excellent cinematography, enjoyable music, and keen observations of human behaviour.

In "The End Of Violence" the omnipresence of technology is a recurring motif. Pullman's character, the action film producer Mike Max, begins the film embedded in his space-age computer chair, plugged in to phone, video conferencing, and internet data streams. Even his wife (Andie McDowell) has to phone him to reveal she is leaving, apparently to go to Guatemala. (One of many hilarious lines in the film.)

Mike will soon become unplugged by an act of seemingly random violence. But by then we have been shown the surveillance center installed in the Griffith Observatory, its cameras now trained to look down on people rather than up to the heavens. Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne) is having second thoughts about the ethics of the secret project, and sets in motion the chain of events that culminates in the action we are witness to.

Wenders makes clear the artifice in play, setting some of it on a film set in which a German director enjoys, almost despite himself, making a low-brow film in Hollywood. It's great to see him poke fun at himself. The set is a beautiful replica of Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks", a heightened depiction of average people at an average bar.

Later in the film, at such a bar, Cat (Traci Lind), dressed in her costume from a movie set, and Mike, dressed in his costume as a Mexican labourer, talk. "You know, I hate it in movies when the guy, running from the government, meets a well-intentioned beautiful girl, gives her top-secret information... that character, she always dies." Despite that misgiving he gives her the information because he trusts her.

The characters in this film all have one syllable names (Six, Doc) that attest to their emblematic status as objects within a Hollywood landscape (and inside a Hollywood film). Mike's wife Page appears as blank as one, Cat is a slinky love interest, Doc can't help looking into things, Mike himself is a character who literally takes it to the Max.

"The End Of Violence" is also engaged politically, showing us what it means to be all-too visible to the dominant authority (infra-red cameras and sharp-shooters in the night) but also what it means to be invisible (Hispanic workers with leaf-blowers). The romantic view of the migrant worker is not allowed to go unchecked. "Don't like us too much" the patriarch tells the former mogul he has befriended.

The penultimate moment in the film is a scene of heart-stopping violence, not played out as frames from a bloody Mike Max movie, but delivered to us cold. The reaction shot is from an old man in a room. The consequences of the act on the very human characters we have come to know is delivered without fuss, without excess, and is all the more powerful for that.

The final scene involves four characters, three of whom are little known to us, but who will carry on the narrative after the film ends. Some will continue the violence, but others will continue to trust, to weave the web of human interactions that is all we have, says Wenders, to fight the system of imposed values Hollywood embraces.

The camera captures the blue of the sky, the blue of the sea, a blue that has saturated the film with its deep promises of redemption but also threats of danger.

Both are entwined together in this remarkable film.


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